1.46 Planes, Trains & Automobiles

TORONTO, ONTARIO: Modern travel continues to evolve. Well, except when nature has a say. Europe was shut down right before the holidays due to heavy snowfall. As I write this, New York City is hidden under a blanket of the white stuff, a storm hitting the eastern seaboard of North America. The dropping of the ball on New Year’s Eve might be postponed, perhaps even cancelled. The comedian Louis CK’s segment on Conan O’Brien explores how we should appreciate the ability to get anywhere in the world quickly, efficiently and comfortably. If you haven’t seen it, here’s the link. He believes that everyone sitting in a chair in the sky in an airplane should constantly be screaming with wonderment over our shared participation in the miracle of flight.

We all have travel stories and we like to tell the horror stories. I recently returned to Toronto on a flight and was asked if anything eventful happened. Nothing. On this realization, I was disappointed. Everything went well – sure, the flight was a bit late but no one seemed to mind, the overall tone of the passengers was jovial teetering towards boredom.

Here are three short stories involving different aspects of travel. It would be interesting to hear of your travel stories: Nightmare stories, pleasant travelogues or an experience with someone interesting you talked with for three hours on a bus and never saw again.

1. Planes:

New Zealand is far away. Farther than you may think. I was sitting in the window seat on the flight from Los Angeles to Auckland. The airline was New Zealand Air and they know how to treat their passengers: Gourmet food with multiple courses, free wine and other alcoholic beverages and personal entertainment systems before they became the norm. The airline made the long flight comfortable.

The man beside me sat down at the beginning of the flight and did not say a word. The moment we were in the air, he leaned his seat back, kicked his feet up and placed a blindfold over his eyes. Light snoring was heard within minutes. He was missing the great service of New Zealand Air!

There can be too much of a good thing. For example, too much wine. Wine makes you have to use the washroom. Did I mention I was sitting by the window?

I scrutinized the scene: There was just no way around my seatmate. No room was left between him and the seat in front. Sure, his feet were up, but I couldn’t crawl underneath. The times were getting desperate.

I unbuckled my seatbelt. Placed on hand on the armrest between our seats, reached around the sleeping giant and took hold of his other armrest. I stepped one leg over his stretched legs and for a moment, I was straddling him. As these things happen, his snoring was interrupted with a snort and I froze. I wondered what his reaction would be if he woke up, removed his blindfold to find his seatmate staring into his eyes. But he remained asleep and the snoring commenced after what seemed like a very long time.

I hopped the rest of the way over him and bounced down the aisle. I passed on more wine for the duration of the flight.

2. Trains:

Traveling is enjoyable but I am not interested in speaking to a stranger just because we are sitting beside each other. There is too much pressure and small talk only goes so far. When I sit down on a train or a plane, I immediately take out a book or plug earphones in – the universal signs for: I don’t want to talk to you. The old woman on a train I took from Ottawa to Toronto was not familiar with this universal sign. She didn’t get the memo.

Trains are different from planes – seats are not assigned, so it’s first come, first served. I found a seat in the back and always hoped for an empty train so the seat next to me remained empty. I saw her the moment she entered the train car. She walked all the way to where I was sitting, stood still and looked around. My first mistake was looking up from my book. On eye contact, she said, “Is this seat taken?”

I should have lied.

She sat down next to me even though half the car was empty. I was not even reading the words on the pages, just staring down at the book. The old woman took out what looked to be a walkman, as in a walkman that used audio cassettes.

She smiled at me and said, “Now, let’s take a look at the tapes I borrowed from the library: Oh, Paula Abdul, Shut Up and Dance!”

Now, this was before Paula Abdul had made her comeback as a judge on American Idol. She plugged her earphones in and started bobbing her head with the music. After a moment, she frowned at the walkman, shook it in her hand, unplugged the earphones. “Looks like the batteries are dead,” she said. “So, what’s your reason for traveling?”

The batteries weren’t dead. I put my book away. She told me about grandkids she was visiting in Toronto – I saw pictures. We discussed the train versus the plane. She gave me one of her Werthers candies.

A while later, I woke groggily from a nap. My neck was bent out of shape and I was confused. I looked over at the old woman next to me but she stared straight ahead. I must have dozed off while she was talking. She was mad at me. I tried to say I was sorry but she ignored me. I felt terrible because she was a harmless old woman and all she wanted from me was to listen. And I fell asleep. People were probably always falling asleep on her.

After apologizing a few more times, she finally pulled out more photographs of her grandchildren and I took each one in my hands, inspected it, asked questions, wanted her to tell me more, wanted her to tell me everything.

3. Automobiles:

My friend lived in Calgary and acquired a new car, which he was driving back to Toronto. I decided to fly to Calgary and join him on his return trip. We live in a diverse country with many beautiful landscapes. The middle of the country is flat. Call me ignorant, call me a Toronto snob, but this is a drive I feel I don’t have to do again in my life. I am being nice in an attempt to not alienate any readers that live in Alberta, Saskatchewan or Manitoba.

My friend and I were film students so we dipped south into the United States and around the Great Lakes. We took some extra time to visit Fargo, Minnesota. We were nerds. To answer your questions: Yes, there is nothing to see in Fargo; yes, the people speak funny; no, they have not outlawed wood chippers.

The only time I received a speeding ticket was near Chicago. And I wasn’t even going very fast – I think the officer in question needed to pad his quota. We were stopped by a State Trooper – have you ever been in contact with a State Trooper? They are intimidating individuals. As stated above, we were film nerds but the State Trooper seemed to walk right out of a movie. Tall, built like a bull, mirrored sunglasses.

I rolled down the window and started to explain myself but he cut me off. All business. He took our information and made us sweat for about ten minutes. Paranoid thoughts occur when you’re being scrutinized by the police. Your life flashes before your eyes: Did I ever break the law? What exactly are they looking up on their computer? What will they find? Will he mix me up with another person with the same name, a serial killer wanted in three states?

I was just happy that he only gave us a ticket and didn’t throw us in jail. We watched our speed, at least until we crossed the border back into Canada. The OPP are not nearly as intimidating as State Troopers.